By Yoojin Grace Wuertz
EBTU is about four students attending Seoul National University in 1978. Jisun, a young woman from a very wealthy background who wants to be part of the student revolution; Namin, a poor scholarship student trying to support her family, and Jisun’s best friend; Sunam, a boy who torn between both women and who really just wants to climb the social calendar; and Juno, who is really only interested in advancing himself. At the center is the university’s prestigious and secretive club: The Circle, created and led by Jisun’s brother.
First off, the book is exceptionally written. It takes place in the 70s, in the middle of the factory protests of that time – in fact it starts off with a scene where a woman, faced with the police, takes her top and bra off, standing bare chested. The other women follow, and for a moment there’s a pause – as though the police might respect their modesty, that most-valued thing – and it breaks, and they’re jailed, with Jisun quickly released because of her wealthy, influential father. It combines the heart of these kids (who are growing, but you’re often reminded of how unfair things are given how young they are) with some fascinating political back-drop. I’ll need to pick up a historical account of Korea next year, though, because the scene of topless women protesting has appeared in two separate books now (or maybe three) and yet I can’t find any evidence of it in real life, making me wonder if it’s a common fictional trope that authors have picked up on, or a small facet of history that just happens not to have been publicised in English-medium websites.
Second, which follows easily, that much like the other books by Korean women in this list, it picks up a very interesting point of Korean history and follows it through: it doesn’t try to cover that much ground in terms of time, so that gives it a lot of depth and detail. It focuses on the student revolution and activism on the ground, especially how Jisun is involved in it.
Third, it does a fantastic job of showing how naive, yet complex, the characters are: it shows us how hypocritical Jisun can be, and how selfish Sunam can be, and how self-involved Namin can be. But even given all their flaws, it also makes sure that, rooted in the political themes of the book, space is given to give voice to those who deserve to have it within the narrative. I think it does justice to the people in and the themes of the book. Mind you, it’s a slow read. Really slow at first, especially. I found Namin and Jisun’s stories the most interesting, in that order too, but Sunam was also a huge component, stuck between these two women and his own selfish desires to become one of the chosen ones in The Circle. And that slowness comes from trying to flesh out that much complexity – sometimes, too much detail drags down a story, and at a few points EBTU suffers from that. I’d still recommend it, though. Korean women (ok she’s American, but whatever) killing it again.
Lol, coincidentally me and Sue’s friend had just watched the movie The Circle, with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, and that also was about this club of elites. But they have nothing to do with each. I was a bit disappointed.